[A short story for you today. I once asked a college class whether any of the students there had ever been interested in magic. One young woman raised her hand, somewhat timidly. I reassured her that there was no need to be embarrassed about it, for magic, if it really worked, would be a low-effort way to get or do a lot of things that take tremendous effort as matters stand. So also with the existence of djinni – “genies” in the American idiom. Such supernatural beings would make many things possible that aren’t today…but who’s to say whether they would be benevolently disposed towards us? — FWP]
“Khalid!” I cried as he entered the Ajedrez. “I haven’t seen you in an eon. Come sit and hoist a couple with me.” I signaled to the bartender. “Two more Omnipotence Punches, please.” And of course they appeared instantly before us as Khalid squatted on the stool next to mine. He nodded thanks, immediately downed half of his drink, and set it back down looking morose.
His appearance took me aback. Khalid is lauded among the djinni for his upbeat, can-do attitude – and what he can do in the way of frustrating a human wisher is legendary. Many a human whose wishes Khalid has granted exactly as stated has wished afterward, when thanks to his own avarice all was irretrievably lost, that he had never found Khalid’s lamp. I’d studied his greatest feats with a combination of worshipful admiration and hope that I might someday be half as ingenious.
Yet here he was looking as if someone had hexed his houris.
I laid a hand on his shoulder. “What’s troubling you, my friend and mentor?”
He scowled, finished his drink, and signaled to the bartender for another. The empty glass vanished and a new, full one appeared in its place. The Ajedrez is famous for its customer service.
“I’ve been defeated,” he grumped.
“I had to grant a human three wishes and couldn’t outthink him on any of them!”
I sat back, appalled. Khalid’s been beaten on one wish before—we all have—but on all three? Never before. Not him! It was news that shouldn’t be allowed to get around among the humans.
It was plain that he needed to vent, so I said, very softly, “Would you like to talk about it?”
“Like?” he said. “Gehenna, no. But I suppose I should. Especially if the way he outfoxed me should become common knowledge.” He turned and looked frankly at me. “What human characteristic do we exploit?”
I shrugged. “Their greed, of course. Our power seems to promise them the sun, the moon, and the stars, at no cost and no effort.”
He nodded. “So we encourage them to think big. Ask for whatever you’ve been lusting after. The huge fortune. The godlike body. The movie star lover. Then we exploit the margins they leave unspecified to frustrate them.”
“It is our function in the scheme of things,” I said. “It teaches them moderation and realism—that their dreams are bigger than their pockets. What they think they want is something no one can have without consequences that render it worthless.”
“Indeed,” he said. “And the three-wish format gives them just enough rope to hang them with their own avarice. That is the intention, at least.” Animation flooded into his face. “But this one…Najib, I couldn’t tempt him!”
I couldn’t quite believe what I had heard. “You were found by a human who had no greed in him? None at all?”
He nodded. “None that I could exploit within the conditions of the three wish system. Perhaps if I’d been able to offer him a fourth one…but that’s been forbidden ever since the invention of the antique brass oil lamp.”
I waited in silence, desperate to hear everything, but I knew that Khalid had to tell the tale at his own pace. Presently he sipped at his second drink, set it down, and began.
“When he rubbed my lamp and I saw him for the first time, I thought I’d bagged a prize,” he said. “You would have thought so, too. Short, painfully gaunt, and with a cleft palate. He could barely stand up straight, and when he did he only came up to my waist. His arms and legs were so spindly that they looked like a strong breeze might snap them. The cleft palate made him too unsightly for a woman to look on him with sincere affection, much less lust. From his appearance alone, I was certain he would be the greediest specimen I’d ever encountered! It took all my strength not to cackle over him.”
Other djinni had noticed that Khalid was holding forth and had clustered around us to listen. I nodded and gestured that he should continue.
“I told him about the three wishes. He barely reacted. He said he was satisfied with his existence, that he couldn’t think of a thing to wish for.” He chuckled. “I’ve heard disclaimers of that sort before, you know.”
“As have I,” I said.
He nodded. “Always before, it’s been a pose. Not this time.
“So I told him that the three wishes could be saved for a later time, when he might perhaps think of something he wants but doesn’t have. He thought about it briefly,” Khalid said, “and the expression that bloomed on his face made me think that my moment had arrived. He said ‘No, I think I’d better use them at once.’
“‘Very well, master,’ I said, “What is it that you wish?’
“‘For my first wish,’ he said, ‘I wish that you relieve me of my tendency to pity myself for my lot in life, for I know self-pity to be a great fault in a man—but leave me unaltered in any other way.’
“It took me aback,” Khalid said. “It was the first time anyone who found my lamp had wished for an improvement in his character. Humans rarely doubt their own characters. They’re constructed so that each will think himself the standard, the expression of all that is right and worthy. It surprised me so greatly that I granted his wish at once, without any distortion.
“‘For my second wish,’ he said, ‘I wish that you relieve me of my tendency to envy others who are more fortunate than I, for envy is both a sin in itself and the mother of many other sins—but leave me unaltered in any other way.’”
It was too much. I gasped in horror. A human incapable of envy? What could djinni and demons do with a race so formed? “Did you honor that wish?” I murmured.
“I was compelled to do so,” Khalid said. “He had struck twice against his own defects, and had fenced his wishes with exactly the right formula to prevent me from doing him any harm. So I gave him what he had wished for, and said ‘And your third wish?’
“‘May I give that to my mother?’ he said.
“‘Sadly, you may not,’ I replied. ‘Your wishes are irrevocably yours, and cannot be transferred to another. Is there nothing else you would wish for?’
“He lapsed into thought once more, and I became hopeful. He had frustrated me twice, but I was certain he could not do so a third time. So I waited, and after a few moments his expression brightened, and he said ‘Yes, I believe there is something more.’ I smiled and crossed my arms in our traditional fashion.
“‘My mother is old,’ he said, ‘and has been much afflicted by chance. She is a widow, has little in this world, and only one child, who has always fallen short of her dreams: myself. If it is within your power, O djinn, would you please give my mother the son she has wished for all her life?’”
The shock was almost unendurable. “Did the human know that we cannot create life, that we are restricted to altering that which is and nothing more?”
Khalid shrugged. “I do not think so, Najib, but it does not matter. I had to grant his wish, and I did so. And before my eyes, he straightened, grew tall, became fit, trim, and handsome. A fine, straight specimen of young manhood. He could not believe what he had become through that third wish. He sang my praises most fulsomely and ran off to present himself to his mother as I vanished back into my lamp.”
The djinni gathered around us moaned in sympathy.
“Let us pray,” I said, “that this episode went unwitnessed, and that no tale of it will ever be told among humans or demons.”
“If the Lord of All should deign to listen to the prayers of djinni,” he said.
“Do you think so?” I said.
“It is uncertain.” He finished his drink, nodded farewell, and left us behind to ponder and lament.
Copyright © 2020 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.